By Rob Golub
RACINE - At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Dorie Miller, a U.S. Navy mess attendant, was sorting laundry in the belly of the battleship USS West Virginia.
As he sorted, Japanese aircraft buzzed into Pearl Harbor, routing the Navy with a surprise attack and sinking 19 American ships.
Despite his inconspicuous assignment in the laundry, Dorie Miller would play a key role that infamous day. He would be awarded the Navy Cross for bravery.
Miller's heroism would later be commemorated in Racine, with the 1953 founding of the Dorie Miller American Legion Post No. 546. It's a traditionally African American post that operates today at 1234 Douglas Ave.
Miller's heroism also will be remembered this weekend, almost 60 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States in World War II. The heavily hyped movie "Pearl Harbor" opens at area theaters Friday. In a starring role, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Miller, one of a million African Americans who served during that war.
"He was a hero of Pearl Harbor," said Post Commander Forrest Gray, who joined the post soon after it was founded in 1953.
"I don't think there was much discussion," Gray said of the naming of the post. "His name was brought up and pretty much agreed upon."
After all, Dorie Miller achieved a symbolic victory for blacks in an unjust world, one where the armed forces were segregated. Also, African Americans were generally not permitted to fight.
Miller was sorting laundry when the attack began, according to one account. His ship's captain was struck in the stomach with a large piece of shrapnel.
Miller and Lt. Cmdr. Doir C. Johnson rushed up on deck to drag the captain to safety. Miller was well-suited to the task because he was a burly man, a boxer.
After the captain died, Johnson saw Miller manning a machine gun. Miller was "blazing away as though he had fired one all his life," Johnson said in an interview with conducted for the book "At Dawn We Slept" by Gordon W. Prange.
Miller had never before fired a machine gun, and he was barred from doing so under Navy rules. He nonetheless may have shot down several enemy aircraft.
Such heroism effectively put Dorie Miller's picture on the wall in the Racine American Legion hall. Next to the portrait is a description of Miller's deeds and a drawing of the USS Miller.
The frigate Miller was named for the hero, a man born in 1919 in Waco, Texas, and given the name Doris Miller. The USS Miller was in the Navy fleet from 1973 until being decommissioned in 1991.
Gray feels Miller was a hero, but he also said that the sailor may have felt no choice but to fight. The West Virginia could have sunk and taken him with it, so it made sense to jump on a gun and defend it.
"During that time, it was a matter of life and death," said Gray, himself a Korean War veteran.
The widespread recognition Miller will receive with the movie may be long overdue. Some feel African American achievements are in need of greater recognition.
"The contribution of African Americans to American popular culture has generally been underappreciated," said Rozanne Leppington, a visiting professor at University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
The media appears to be moving towards greater recognition of blacks, said Leppington, a communications expert.
"I would think it's filling in gaps," she said. "I think there is a somewhat vague cultural movement, which I think is vital."
Unfortunately, Miller didn't live to see America's appreciation expressed in the form of a movie. Dorie Miller died during World War II.
Still a mess attendant, he was lost with the escort carrier Liscome Bay when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on Nov. 24, 1943.